Libya: What Next for Derna?

With a near-complete victory in Benghazi, Libya’s eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar is “eyeing” Tripoli. But he and his Libyan National Army (LNA) are also eyeing other sites closer to Benghazi, among them Sirte (to Benghazi’s west) and Derna (to Benghazi’s east).

Sirte is where the Islamic State was defeated in a long campaign waged in 2016, waged primarily by forces from the western city of Misrata rather than by the LNA.

Derna was partly controlled by the Islamic State in 2014-2015 (which was finally forced out in 2016), but since then the most prominent force there has been a jihadist, anti-Islamic State coalition called the Consultative Council of the Mujahideen of Derna (Majlis Shura Mujahidi Darna, often abbreviated DMSC in English sources).

The state presence there is weak and may consist effectively of freelancers: One security official recently described Derna, as paraphrased by a reporter (Arabic), as “outside of the legal authority of the state,” and added that “a number of officers in Derna conduct their affairs without a tasking from the Ministry of the Interior or any legitimate section of the state.”

With regard to Derna, here are a few developments worth noting from May-July:

  • Airstrikes in May: The most recent airstrikes I’ve heard about on Derna were by Egypt (the Egyptian government is an ally of Haftar’s) in late May, in response to an attack inside Egypt. “Libyan National Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Messmari told reporters in Benghazi…that Haftar’s forces were coordinating with Egypt’s military in air strikes and the weekend raids targeted ammunition stores and operations camps.” The DMSC, at the time, denied (Arabic) that the airstrikes were targeting them specifically, and also denied any involvement in the attack in Egypt.
  • Haftar’s/LNA’s advance (reported July 17): “Units of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hafter claim to have moved to within 20 kilometres of Derna, removing earth barriers mounds and cement blocks at Kirissah, west of the Mujahideen-controlled town…The commander of the Omar Mukhtar Operations Room, Brigadier Salim Al-Rafadi, announced that talks were taking place with elders from the town over surrendering it without bloodshed. As a result operations were temporarily being delayed. However, he insisted that one way or another, the army would enter the town.”
  • The possibility (Arabic) that the DMSC will join the LNA (reported July 20): According to one of Derna’s members of the House of Representatives, the eastern-based Libyan parliament, the DMSC “wants to dissolve itself and join the army.” Alongside possible discussions between the DMSC and the LNA, discussions are also reportedly occurring (Arabic) between the DMSC and various notables within Derna, who are keen to avoid a full-scale war with the LNA for control of the city. The city is also suffering from various shortages of electricity, food, and other essentials. For now, however, the DMSC and the LNA remain enemies, and the DMSC continues to accuse the LNA of having abetted (Arabic) the Islamic State’s flight from the city.

It will be interesting to see whether this standoff over Derna is resolved politically or military. A political resolution allowing the LNA to take control might be a bigger sign of Haftar’s power than a pitched battle for the city – if various eastern factions are putting their fingers to the wind and deferring to Haftar’s growing strength, he would gain more momentum than if he has to fight for every inch of territory.

On the (Most Recent) Reported Death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a French airstrike in southern Libya likely killed the jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The reports have been met with some skepticism, given that Belmokhtar has been reported dead numerous times. For example, American authorities believed they had killed Belmokhtar in a June 2015 airstrike in Ajdabiya, northeasterrn Libya (map).

Belmokhtar was born in Ghardaïa, Algeria in 1972. He traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and then participated in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). The GSPC affiliated with al-Qaida in 2006-2007, and Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in the rebranded al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). To a certain extent, he broke away from AQIM from roughly 2012-2015, although his forces were effectively reintegrated into AQIM by late 2015.

It is not easy to determine exactly where the most recent strike occurred. There was a reported airstrike on November 14 on the outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sabha (map). That strike may have claimed the lives of AQIM’s Abu Talha al-Hassnawi and six others. One wonders whether Belmokhtar was among them – he and al-Hassnawi were reportedly close, and had allegedly been seen together after returning to Sabha from the coastal city of Sirte. Another source (French), however, says that the airstrike occurred in the Bani Walid region (map) south of Tripoli, or in other words in northwestern rather than southern Libya. I favor the first account, but the second is worth considering.

It is possible that Belmokhtar has been using Libya as his main base of operations since the fall of the jihadist territory that AQIM and allied factions controlled in northern Mali in 2012-2013. Although Belmokhtar’s forces have claimed responsibility for major attacks beyond Libya, he has been (accurately or otherwise) sighted there many times since 2013. AQIM is a player in intra-jihadist politics in northeastern Libya and has a presence, although its size is difficult to determine, in southwestern Libya. Regarding the northeast, it is worth noting that when Belmokhtar was targeted in the June 2015 strike on Ajdabiya, he was possibly there to help aid some anti-ISIS jihadis planning to expel ISIS from another northeastern coastal city, Derna. Regarding the southwest, it is worth noting that there are murky connections between AQIM and smugglers in towns such as Sabha and Ubari.

Alongside reports of Belmokhtar’s death, there are reports that one of his wives was arrested in Derna when she went there to give birth. The woman, a Tunisian national, reportedly gave birth in mid-October after Belmokhtar sent her from southern Libya to Derna. She believed at that time that Belmokhtar was alive, although she parted company with him well before the latest reported strike. AQIM (French), for its part, has denied that Belmokhtar has a Tunisian wife at all. But even the rumor of a senior jihadist’s wife being arrested makes me think that wives are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marrying into local communities can help jihadists forge important ties. But on the other hand, wives can be a security and intelligence risk. I doubt that she provided intelligence that led directly to Belmokhtar’s targeting, but it’s quite possible that she did provide actionable intelligence about other jihadi camps, leaders, etc.

If Belmokhtar is indeed dead, then all the familiar debates about decapitation can be rehearsed. The argument for assassination is that it removes key decision-makers, disrupts organizational cohesion and operational planning, and weakens networks. The argument against assassination is that leaders are often quickly replaced, that organizational fragmentation can be dangerous, and that successors are sometimes more reckless, competent, or brutal than their predecessors. I tend to think the benefits of decapitation are exaggerated; your mileage may vary.